Like many college students, I’ve clocked an embarrassing amount of hours on LinkedIn during this pandemic. Although I initially logged in for the job postings, I slowly grew intrigued with the strange subculture of LinkedIn influencers that had inconspicuously populated my feed. These influencers had developed a cottage industry sharing content about their daily professional lives, their views of industry at large, and most amusingly, their own views of the “gospel of success.” Their content was the perfect mix of lifestyle influencer and televangelist: excessively curated, moralistic, and fundamentally disconnected from the real world. Users would pine about the bygone glory of their 40-hour unpaid internships in the midst of staggering unemployment and food insecurity.1, 2 They’d share charming stories of co-workers and setbacks at the office that always had the perfect narrative arc. And far too many influencers tried their hands at Shel Silverstein-esque free verse poetry, producing single sentence paragraph posts that were always adorned with just one too many hashtags.
I could wax endlessly about my distaste for this type of content, but it’s undeniably popular. Some LinkedIn influencers boast hundreds of thousands of followers and have built similarly flourishing communities on peer text-based platforms like Substack, Twitter, and Medium. “Professional thought leadership” has become a formidable (and profitable) genre of influencing. Recruiting gurus on LinkedIn can parlay their insider expertise into private career coaching. Entrepreneurs often produce paid courses that expound upon their “gospels of success” on third party platforms like Udemy. And, as Digiday highlighted in July of 2020, moderately-sized Substacks can yield enormous profits—up to $13,000 for a subscriber base of 3,000, each paying just $5 a month.3 These influencers have capitalized on the incredible demand for lucrative careers by billing themselves and their digital personas as prophets of professional success. Focusing on the success of these influencers, however, obfuscates the more glaring issues of “professional thought leadership” and career-related content on social media. These social media platforms are effectively bringing the worst parts of the office online, glorifying overwork and a ceaseless focus on professional ascension, while also amplifying the toxic social politics of the workplace that we seek to escape after the workday.
Over the past few months, I’ve learned that “professional thought leadership” isn’t merely a personal vanity project for the largest influencers. It’s a professional development tool for those aspiring for upward career mobility. Users curate feeds trumpeting their own success just like any other social platform, but their focus on LinkedIn is accruing high quality connections like recruiters and employers, rather than a high quantity of followers. Just last month, a student advised me that the best way to “break into VC is by starting a Twitter.” He himself had secured his two past internships through Twitter and LinkedIn networking. In this student’s estimation, the only people who have escaped the need to develop social media personas are “the industry’s dinosaurs, but even they’re getting online.”
Covid-19 has created the perfect storm for the acceleration of professional influencing, resulting in explosive growth for platforms like Linkedin. At the end of April, Microsoft reported that LinkedIn monthly usage had increased 50% in March with users watching over four million hours of content.4 After all, prospective employees now rely on LinkedIn to fill the void of in-person networking events and large recruiting fairs. Recruiters are relying on users’ profiles and personas to wade through the record-breaking deluge of applications.5 And, with millions of workers at home, the social aspects of LinkedIn are the closest replacement for office socialization. Becoming a career influencer on a micro scale seems fundamental to both employment and the career experience in every industry, function, and role.
However, personal branding isn’t a new professional phenomenon. In 2018, Alex Williams of The New York Times recounted a 1997 feature from the paper about an aspirational Dairy Queen employee who was building his own brand. The employee, 17-year-old Jesse Dagget said, “If people buy my brand, if they hire me, that means they like me.”6 This disambiguation between self and one’s brand was a product of popular self-help works like “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Americans believed that the best way to improve themselves was to perceive themselves as a corporation or Me, Inc.: developing a values statement to guide their conduct and engaging in self-promotional marketing to build their reputation. As Jesse put it, “I like to think of the brand Jesse this way. Hard worker. Putting yourself in charge. If something needs to be done, Jesse can do it and get it done and be the leader of the team.”7 As of 2018, Jesse had ascended from Dairy Queen employee to national account executive, but the expectations for a personal brand have rapidly increased.
As Williams reflects, “The anecdotes, while prescient, seem almost quaint…the average teenager in 2018 is more likely to fantasize about becoming Jay-Z the empire builder than Jay-Z the chart topper.”8 The higher expectations of personal branding are encouraged by the greater reach of digital platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. Every post is available to anyone—friends, employers, and even strangers—at any time. Constant exposure compels users to appear either inoffensive or shameless. Users in perpetual fear of professional consequences apply the office hierarchy to their posting, populating their feeds with already popular retweets and recycled content. Influencers, on the other hand, use this vacuum of content to prophesy and endlessly self-promote. John Hickey, the founder of @BestofLinkedIn observes that these professional media ecosystems are occupied by “hundreds of thousands of bosses, and tens of millions of people who want to please their bosses.”9, 10 This office hierarchy creates an unhealthy dynamic of forced socialization: users fear the real world consequences of going digitally “out of bounds” with their comments. Even LinkedIn’s own editor in chief, Dan Roth, acknowledges the gravity of posting on the platform: “This is something that your boss sees, your future boss, people you want to work with in the future. It’s as close to your permanent record as you can get.”11
The focus on inoffensive content leaves critical topics unaddressed. Excusing the occasional Get Out the Vote post, these professional influencers operate in a corporate vacuum, ignoring pervasive social justice issues that exist in their workplace. During this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, many brands, both personal influencers and companies, offered statements of solidarity decrying racism.12 But few in the tech space were willing to broach the discussion of algorithmic fairness and bias in facial recognition software.13 Few in the entrepreneurship ecosystem discussed the dramatic underrepresentation of Black and POC founders in venture funding. LinkedIn itself promoted aesthetic Black Lives Matter cover art and Black professionals without starting discussions on racial equity in the workplace or addressing the platform’s lax moderation of hateful comments. This sanitized approach to politics might be effective in keeping an audience, but it’s also depriving users of necessary conversations about how their work interacts with society. Simply put, the silence is deafening.
These professional ecosystems don’t just suppress social discourses. They suppress valid concerns about work-life balance and toxic professional culture with a sea of positive content that glorifies and glamorizes endless work. The above post about the two steps to success is quintessential of the hustle culture that permeates every platform. Thousands cheered on Elon Musk as he tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”14 Career influencers praise Marissa Mayer’s 130-hour workweek at Google with “strategic bathroom breaks” as a model to be emulated.15 They proudly post about all-nighters and holding multiple side hustles without discussing balance. Even the posts that are supposed to demonstrate authenticity are carefully packaged images that make them more endearing, the rhetorical equivalent of people saying that their only flaw is that they care too much. The race to deem oneself the hardest worker is dangerous and fetishistic, glorifying absolute success over any considerations of wellness.
Over time, this culture is draining even for the highest-level career influencers. Katherout, who devoted years of her channel to her overachieving at the workplace, has published videos about how burnt out the hustle culture has made her.16 In the same way that we recognize photo editing is distorting beauty standards, the abridged coverage of work-life and the zealous deification of tech CEOs is distorting work standards. It’s a never-ending cycle: these career influencers push more extreme working habits or controversial opinions to drive engagement, which influences their audiences to emulate these habits, which increases the demand for further content. People are supposed to have lives, identities, even “brands” beyond their jobs. But, it’s hard to develop that separation when social media platforms highlight influencers whose lives, identities, and brands are their jobs.
There’s no singular analog or digital solution to resolve our career influencing obsession. Rather, there needs to be a robust reassessment of how professional content is promoted on LinkedIn, how office hierarchies root in social platforms, and how users can better reconcile their professional personas and lives. First, platforms need to reevaluate how their algorithms can promote high-value content over highly-engageable but low value posts. LinkedIn, in particular, should expand usage of its verification tool to high-traffic users that align with their values and increase the power of verified content over unverified content. For example, there’s a flourishing community of diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals on LinkedIn who offer important resources for smaller businesses on how to create an equitable workplace. These accounts, however, are competing with unverified, lower quality posters for engagement. Verifying and promoting these accounts along with bona fide experts in other industries will create feeds with more enriching, positive, and authentic content, and thus a higher quality user experience.
Beyond that, LinkedIn should offer opportunities for private connections and communications by emphasizing groups or selected audiences when posting. Users may be more empowered to share real stories of their professional lives or address difficult social and political concerns if they know their boss isn’t watching. Employers can play a role in balancing professional social media by encouraging employees to share professional updates during the workday and log off of such platforms after hours. They can disaggregate social media from the recruiting process by rejecting referrals received through digital networking. Finally, if platforms can’t curtail the tidal wave of bad-faith career content, they can inundate us with good faith media: LinkedIn stories that show failure, balance, and a healthy separation between self and “brand.”After all, this pandemic is the perfect time to reimagine how we engage with “viral” content of any kind.